Because your kidneys are located below your ribcage and towards your back, it can be difficult to tell whether the pain you’re experiencing is back pain or kidney pain.
Since back pain is so common, it’s easy for people who are actually experiencing kidney issues to brush the pain off as “normal” back pain.
This can be dangerous, especially if the underlying cause of kidney pain is a condition that requires immediate medical treatment.
Your symptoms can help you determine whether you’re experiencing back or kidney pain.
The type of pain and its severity can also help you understand the source of your pain.
In this guide, I’ll break down the causes of back and kidney pain, and provide you with tips for identifying the source of your pain. I’ll also tell you when it’s best to talk to your doctor.
Causes of Kidney Pain
- Kidney infections: Kidney infections are one of the most common causes of kidney pain. These infections occur when a bladder or urinary tract infection travels up to the kidneys. This can cause classic UTI symptoms, such as burning with urination, increased frequency of urination, and urinary urgency. Kidney infections may also cause fever, nausea, and flank or back pain. It is important to seek treatment for UTI symptoms when they occur.
- Polycystic kidney disease: This is an inherited disease where kidney cysts form inside the kidneys. Pain occurs when these cysts grow larger, hindering the kidneys’ ability to function properly. Generally, this would be diagnosed when you are an infant or young child.
- Kidney injury: Kidneys are surrounded by layers of fat to help protect them. However, injury can still occur. Kidney injuries can be caused by an aneurysm, artery blockage, trauma, diabetes, buildup of body waste products, high blood pressure, kidney stones, medication side effects, and several other conditions. Typically, these conditions do not cause pain, but in some cases, they may.
- Kidney stones: Stones are hard deposits of minerals—like calcium, phosphate, and magnesium—that form inside your kidneys. When the sharp, rigid surface of a kidney stone begins shifting inside the kidneys or begins transitioning into the bladder, it can be very painful. This usually causes severe, crampy pain that comes and goes. The pain may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
- Kidney cancer: A mass or tumor may be found on the kidneys. These tumors can either be cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign). If a tumor is found, a biopsy should be performed to determine whether or not it is cancerous and to develop a treatment plan.
- Kidney cysts: These are round sacs filled with fluid that can form on the surface of a kidney or inside the kidneys.
In very rare cases, severe dehydration may lead to kidney pain.
Severe dehydration can eventually build up waste in your kidneys, causing pain.
This is why it’s important to drink an adequate amount of water for your age, weight, and level of physical activity.
A person who doesn’t drink enough fluids over time may become dehydrated and eventually experience kidney pain.
This occurs only in very severe or prolonged cases or when you have other health problems—mild dehydration that you experience in everyday life would not be expected to cause kidney pain.
How to Identify Kidney Pain
In some cases, back pain may subside when you move, while kidney pain tends to be a constant ache.
So if you’re able to shift your body and the pain lessens or goes away, it may be back pain.
If you are experiencing lower back pain, you can probably rule out kidney pain.
The kidneys are located higher up in the back.
Kidney pain tends to be in the mid-to-upper back region on the sides, not in the center.
Still think your pain may be in your kidneys?
Here are some key symptoms and pain indicators you should look out for if you suspect you have a kidney issue.
The most common symptoms experienced with kidney pain include:
- A dull, constant ache or intermittent sharp pain in the sides of your mid-back or below your lower ribs on the side or in the back
- Pain that does not change with changes in body position
Type of pain
The type of pain varies depending on the cause of your kidney pain.
If due to an infection, kidney pain is usually described as a constant, dull ache.
In the case of kidney stones, the pain may be sharp and come in waves as the kidney stone moves.
It’s normal for a person to experience kidney pain in either one or both sides of their body.
Your kidneys are located just below your rib cage, with one on either side of your spine.
Kidney pain is usually experienced higher up on the back, and not in the center.
Some symptoms of kidney infections or kidney stones may seem similar to those of bladder infections or urinary tract infections, like cloudy urine or a painful burning sensation while urinating.
If these urinary tract symptoms are accompanied by pain or some of the other following symptoms, you may have a kidney infection or kidney stone:
- Fever and chills
- Nausea and vomiting
- Cloudy or dark urine
- Blood in urine
- Pain while urinating
- A frequent, urgent need to urinate
- Small kidney stones in your urine
Causes of Back Pain
Anything that puts pressure on or damages the spine or muscles of the low back can cause back pain.
Sometimes, the cause can be as simple as overuse over a long period of time.
Other times, the source may be an injury from a traumatic event or from participation in high-impact contact sports.
Injury or accident is one of the more common reasons for back pain.
An unexpected twist or sudden motion can result in muscle strain or muscle spasm.
The pain experienced is usually greatest during the first 48-72 hours following the injury, and then gradually gets better over the course of days or sometimes weeks.
More severe injuries, like a fall, may require hospitalization and more recovery time.
Most back pain is acute, meaning it lasts a few days up to four weeks.
When back pain lasts for 12 weeks or longer, it is classified as chronic back pain.
Another common cause of back pain is a ruptured or herniated disc.
Between the vertebrae of your spine, cushioned discs allow the bones of your spine to rotate and bend without rubbing against one another.
But sometimes, these discs can be pushed out of place—by heavy lifting, bending, or for unknown reasons.
When this happens, the bulge from the disc creates pressure on the spine’s nerve roots.
Other causes of back pain can be categorized in the following groups:
- Degenerative problems: This includes conditions like degenerative disc disease, arthritis, and spondylosis.
- Nerve and spinal cord problems: This includes conditions like sciatica, spinal stenosis, osteoporosis, and cauda equina syndrome.
- Congenital conditions: A person can be born with skeletal irregularities, like scoliosis, that cause back pain. Spina bifida is another congenital condition that involves incomplete development of the spinal cord or malformation of vertebrae.
- Non-spinal causes: Other conditions like fibromyalgia, endometriosis, and tumors can cause back pain.
How to Identify Back Pain
Nearly 80% of Americans have experienced low back pain at some point in their lives.
Back pain isn’t limited to just the lower region, though.
Below are a few parameters you can use to find out if the pain you’re experiencing is back pain.
The following symptoms are common with back pain.
Note that the symptoms you experience will depend on the underlying cause of your pain.
- A dull, aching sensation
- Stabbing or shooting pain that radiates down your leg
- Difficulty standing up straight without pain
- Pain when sitting
- Decreased range of motion
Type of pain
The severity and type of pain you experience will depend on the cause of your back pain.
Mild strains, “throwing out your back,” and other muscle injuries will often cause focal pain in the side of your low back that may be sharp or dull, and changes with motion.
These typically get better within about a week with over-the-counter medications and supportive treatments.
Spine injuries such as a herniated disk will tend to cause sharp pain in the center of your back.
These injuries are sometimes associated with pain that travels to the hip or side of the leg.
The duration of these will depend on your specific condition.
Low back pain is one of the most common locations people experience back pain; if you are experiencing low back pain, it’s unlikely that you are experiencing kidney pain.
You can also experience upper back and mid-back pain, though.
There are other symptoms you may experience with back pain—and many of them indicate a serious medical problem that requires immediate attention.
Below are several symptoms to keep an eye out for:
- Numbness, tingling, or weakness in the legs
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Unexplained weight loss
- Abdominal pain
When to See a Doctor
If you are experiencing severe pain, or if your pain spreads or worsens over time, tell your primary care physician.
Ignoring the pain or trying to “tough it out” may only make matters worse.
If experience any of the following severe symptoms, you should contact a healthcare provider immediately:
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Fever or chills
- Pain or numbness that radiates down your limbs
- Difficulty walking or standing
- Nausea or vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Blood in urine
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Frequently Asked Questions
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Back pain led to kidney cancer diagnosis for survivor turned advocate. (2016).
Injury - kidney and ureter. (2020).
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Low Back Pain Fact Sheet. (2021).
Low-Back Pain and Complementary Health Approaches: What You Need To Know. (2020).